For Black History Month, the Globe is featuring profiles on the living civil rights leaders who were named Boston “heroes” on the 1965 Freedom Plaza that surrounds the Embrace sculpture.
She’s called “Ms. Twelfth Baptist Church.” It’s a term of endearment members of the historic church affectionately gave Clara Bell, who has worked under three different pastoral administrations spanning about six decades.
“She’s one of the first faces, if not the first face, you will see when you walk into the building,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, which first opened in 1840. “There’s nothing that we’ve done in this community that Ms. Bell has not been a part of.”
Bell, 81, is among 69 names honored on the 1965 Freedom Plaza, where the bronze statue memorializing Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King lives. Bell, who serves as the church’s office administrator, declined to be interviewed for this story. She told the Globe that while she’s honored to be on the Freedom Plaza, she feels as though she doesn’t belong, because her work was done behind the scenes.
But those who know her and the impact she’s had say her role in the community was vital.
While she was an administrative assistant to the Rev. Michael E. Haynes, the church’s senior minister from 1964 to 2004, she was also coordinating demonstrations in Boston across three decades, according to Embrace Boston, the organization behind the bronze sculpture on Boston Common. She accounted for the necessary documents for those marches and protests, from licenses to permits. Having grown up in Roxbury in the 1940s and embedded in the church, she used the connections she had to secure speakers, ranging from other churches’ leaders to representatives from local organizations.
Her work is just part of a deep history her family had with the church and is why she was given the moniker “Ms. Twelfth Baptist Church,” Bodrick said.
He said Bell’s ancestors were married by the Rev. Leonard Grimes, a conductor on the Underground Railroad and the first pastor of Twelfth Baptist. Many who escaped slavery joined Grimes’s church, making it known at the time as “Fugitive Slaves’ Church,” according to the National Park Service.
The church continued to make its impact in the modern civil rights era. Martin Luther King Jr. chose Twelfth Baptist as his Boston church home. While King and Haynes were at the forefront of the movement, Bell was a behind-the-scenes figure.
Despite mounting injustices, the Rev. Arthur T. Gerald Jr., pastor emeritus at Twelfth Baptist, said Bell motivated people to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.
When Gerald was a teenager in the 1960s, Bell encouraged him to go to college and return to give back to the community.
“She was that kind of a person that had a heart for the community, a heart for the work that she did, and certainly a heart for the church,” Gerald said.
Back then, Gerald was an aide to Haynes at the Norfolk House, which he described as being like a Boys and Girls Club. He said he wouldn’t have known about Twelfth Baptist without Haynes and Bell, because he had grown up going to St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church on Tremont Street.
Gerald went on to succeed Haynes in becoming the church’s 13th pastor. He called Bell a “calming, steady voice” during his tenure. Bell is the godmother of his children and a close friend to his wife.
“She has such a wonderful heart. ... She’s like a sister to me,” Gerald said. “She didn’t have any biological children but she embraced and quasi-adopted many children in the Twelfth Baptist Church.”
One Sunday last January, in the days after the bronze statue’s unveiling, Bodrick said the church honored Bell for being among the Boston “heroes” on the 1965 Freedom Plaza and “literally gave her flowers to celebrate her,” Bodrick said.
“She stood to a standing ovation. And that lasted for some minutes because everyone can attest to Ms. Bell being a shero not only of our church, but also of our community,” Bodrick said.
Lauren Booker can be reached at email@example.com.